There was a party at Groothandelsgebouw recently: last Thursday, 20 refugees graduated from a three-month full-time coding course. This digital boot camp was organised for them – free of charge – by a group of RSM students.

Just over half the seats in the cinema theatre on the top floor of the Groothandelsgebouw, which is decked up with a leopard print, are taken. Family and friends of the graduating refugees start trickling in – some of them carrying bouquets. They’ve come to celebrate: the first group of 20 refugees will be graduating today after successfully completing a coding boot camp of almost three months.

And as the attendees are told by the evening’s MC, the graduation ceremony will be done ‘American style’. A number of important people will be speaking today, including the City of Rotterdam’s Alderman for Employment and Economy, Maarten Struijvenberg, and the founder of Nimbuzz (the WhatsApp of the Middle East), Evert Jaap Lugt. And the top student of this edition, who would be named the valedictorian in the States – with Rotterdam following suit – has also been asked to deliver an address. Each student is presented with a sash along with his or her diploma.

The 10-week long boot camps are organised by Restart Network, which was founded by three RSM students: Damin Singh, Frederick Rustler and Teodor Cataniciu. The next batch of participants is already standing by to take the graduates’ place, and some of them are also found in the room today. The refugees can attend the course free of charge: the way the organisers see it, education should be free. The project is paid for by crowdfunding.

The graduated refugees can now call themselves ’Junior Developer’, according to Damin Singh. The objective is to give as many students as possible the chance to do an internship at a private-sector firm. The first position has already been published: at KPN. “We’re still talking with various other companies.”

Prior to the official ceremony, the graduating participants had the opportunity to present their final projects and answer questions from those interested. In the final three weeks of the boot camp, they worked in groups on a site of their own design. Erasmus Magazine spoke with three of the students.

“I’d like to build sites for companies in the agricultural sector.”

Image credit: Marko de Haan

Standing next to his laptop, the Eritrean student Eyobiel Yebio (32) still seems somewhat uneasy talking about his final project, which he conceived together with two countrymen. He rounds off the coding boot camp by showing the audience what he and his fellow students are capable of in the form of a finished site. And they’re well prepared: next to the laptop, the three men have laid a stack of business cards with their phone numbers for those interested.

He presents their final product with obvious passion. “Many of the Eritrean refugees who end up in the Dutch centres speak next to no Dutch, and very poor English. We have set up a site that helps them acquire basic proficiency in English and Dutch.”

Yebio had no experience building websites up to this point: he used to study Agriculture in Eritrea. “The Eritrean Ministry of Agriculture already employed me as a zoological expert at the age of 20. I worked as a consultant, teacher and helped farmers with their business.”

“I’ve been living in the Netherlands for two years now. EP-Nuffic awarded me a scholarship to attend a master programme in Agriculture at Wageningen University. I applied for asylum after arriving here.” Yebio took this step after the political situation in his home country deteriorated. “I couldn’t go back – it was too dangerous.” In April 2015, he was awarded refugee status by the Dutch government, and he is presently living in Rotterdam. “I love the Netherlands: it’s a wonderful, small country, with numerous opportunities and investors.”

Yebio is glad that he could attend this Restart course. “I enjoyed the coding classes. They were a lot more practical than I’m used to: with a stronger focus on work in the field itself. The boot camp lasted ten weeks. The course period coincided with my summer holiday, which was very convenient. I’m very happy that I was allowed to participate. It offers new perspectives. If it was up to me, I would like to combine my background in agriculture with coding. One option could be building sites for companies in the agricultural sector.”

“It’s quite a challenge to get your foot in the door in the Dutch labour market.”

Image credit: Marko de Haan

“My father absolutely refuses to leave Aleppo. I have no idea how he’s doing, but he said he would sooner die than leave his company behind,” says Rola Assafo (31). Her face clouds over for a moment. She herself fled Syria for Turkey by plane. From there, she was able to take a boat to Greece. “Fortunately, this wasn’t one of those rickety boats but a private yacht. Which added to the cost though.” She ultimately ended up in Leersum.

The cheery 31-year-old former Psychology student prefers not to talk about the past: “The important thing is the future, which is full of new opportunities. Moping about the past won’t do me any good.”

Assafo, who is also graduating this evening, often got her classmates’ spirits up during boot camp. She shows a sincere interest in the final products of her fellow students. And here and there, someone is treated to a hug: “I’ve definitely bonded with them over these past three months.”

Her own final product was inspired by a problem that she comes up against quite regularly: “I’m a woman – I like shopping. When I shop online, I need to set up a new account for every site I buy something at, and there’s always some problem or other – either I’ve lost my password, or I make some minor error entering my address details.” Her solution: “E-click. A single account for all your e-commerce! This way, you only have to fill in the right details once, so that they’re correct every time round.”

Assafo is not sure what her life will look like after boot camp. “I’m trying to apply to all sorts of job openings that relate to psychology in some way, but it’s quite a challenge to get your foot in the door as a Syrian. And the requirements for the internship that we’ve been offered by KPN are pretty strict.”

But she’s not giving up. “If need be, I’ll set up my own company, handle the design myself and look for other people who can help me with coding.” And her first potential business partner has actually joined us at the reception table. It’s Assafo’s Dutch boyfriend – they’ve been together for a year now – who, by sheer coincidence, happens to be a computer coder.

“I found out that for me, coding would sooner be a hobby than a job.”

Image credit: Marko de Haan

Fahd Alhaleb (27) beams from ear to ear when he starts talking about his young family. He and his wife, who also came over from Syria to join in his home town of Delft, have a five-month-old son. They married seven years ago, but were subsequently separated for half a decade. “I was studying aviation engineering on a scholarship in Greece, but I didn’t have the money to visit my wife, and she definitely didn’t have the money to visit me either.”

After rounding off his studies in Greece, the situation in Syria had deteriorated to the point that he couldn’t go back. “The Netherlands seemed like a good country to move to – I had heard good things about the Aerospace Engineering master programme in Delft. I’ve registered for a total of six master programmes – hopefully I’ll get admitted to one of them!”

“I didn’t have that much trouble getting a residence permit. After this, I could quickly arrange for my wife to come over.” She’s attending an integration course right now. “Which is no picnic with a little one keeping you up at night,” he says with a smile.

Even though he only moved to the Netherlands two years ago, Alhaleb finds it easier to express himself in Dutch than in English. “The boot camp wasn’t an easy ride for me, since I had no coding experience whatsoever. Over the course of the programme, I found out that for me, coding would sooner be a hobby. I couldn’t do it for a job. But it’s always good for your general knowledge to attend courses of this kind. I heard about it through a contact at the Municipality of Delft. I attended one lesson to see if it was something for me, and then I enrolled in the course.”

“While the Dutch might not always say favourable things about refugees, it isn’t that much of a problem for me personally. I try to make the most of the opportunities that come my way – including this course. As long as we keep doing this, we’ll definitely remain welcome here, and I think most Dutch people will appreciate us for it.”